Kitsch as 'Instant Art'
"With the lack of developed taste in our society goes an inability to make subtle discriminations and a tendency to evaluate things by their most obvious features. What sells today are slickness, gaudiness, flashiness, and sentimentality-in general, whatever elicits a quick automatic response from a passive perceiver. We want things to trigger a momentary "Wow!" and then let us go on to something else. We don't want anything that calls for attention to detail, interpretation, analysis, or any reaction other than "I like it." This love of simple passive experiences explains the popularity of not only kitsch but also alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and our many other drugs.
In films, television, and now video, we like spectacle-people in flashy clothes chasing each other in expensive cars. In our domestic life we seem to value convenience above all-the TV dinner which, if spilled on the nowax vinyl floor, can be wiped up in a second with the superabsorbent paper towel. Where convenience and flashiness converge, we have gadgets, which as a culture we crave. The same person who has kitsch sculpture in the garden may also own a golf cap with a little solar-powered fan in it or a telephone in the shape of a duck that quacks instead of rings.
Kitsch is perfectly suited to most people's passivity, short attention span, and shallow understanding, for it promises them immediate gratification requiring no special background knowledge or activity. It offers itself as instant art.
The fact that kitsch can aim for only a passive response explains why so much of it is sentimental, achieving its effect by evoking simple emotionslove of children, patriotism, religious devotion, and nostalgia-in utterly obvious and predictable ways. A good example here is the use of cuteness in kitsch. Cuteness is a group of features that evolved in mammalian infants as a way of making them attractive to adults. These "releasing stimuli" for nurturant behavior, as ethologists refer to cute features, include a head large in relation to the body, eyes set low in the head, a large protruding forehead, round protruding cheeks, a plump rounded body shape, short thick extremities, soft body surfaces, and clumsy behavior.5 The manufacturers of dolls, children's books, and greeting cards exaggerate all these features to get a positive response from customers. Now to portray a cute child in a painting, for example, is not by tself aesthetically objectionable, but to do so by painting the child's eyes four times the size of real eyes, with three-ounce tears in their corners, is objectionable. For it hits viewers over the head with its message; it tells them just how to react to the painting and
so leaves them with no cognitive steps to go through.
A basic feature of great art, we think, is that it challenges the audience to interpret it and react to it. Within limits, aesthetic value is proportional to the effort needed to process the work cognitively. That's why we prefer works which have subtlety and multiple meanings and which cannot be taken in at a glance. By eliminating these features, kitsch eliminates the potential for aesthetic experience of any worth.
The effortless response kitsch aims for is manifested in kitsch's lack of risk taking and genuine novelty. Kitsch always uses representation, for example, in a straightforward way; there is no questioning of the relation of the representation to what is represented, as there is in so much twentiethcentury at.
Aesthetically, politically, and religiously, kitsch is always conservative. Aesthetically, it looks for images from traditional art that have already become icons, such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Eiffel Tower. It tries to tap their established acceptability and value to get a predictable reaction. In this way, kitsch is the opposite of avant-garde art, which tries to break with tradition and be appreciated in new ways. The political conservatism of kitsch comes out in its celebration of uncritical nationalism and nostalgia for the good old days. The past is seen as understandable, safe, and morally superior; that is why so many kitsch objects are, as the ads say, "antique style," e.g., the smoking stand designed as a miniature colonialstyle, potbelly stove, with an American eagle insignia on it. Religious kitsch, too, tries to tap feelings of satisfaction with tradition rather than, say, feelings of moral outrage at hypocrisy. People who love kitsch want no cognitive challenges and no social or ethical challenges. They want to live in an unambiguous world where each thing has one obvious meaning and is immediately recognizable as either likeable or not likeable.
This lack of an interest in novel and challenging experiences shows up graphically in a pastime that is closely related to kitsch and which supports the sale of many kitsch objects-tourism, travel sold as a commodity. The tour guide takes groups of tourists through "15 cities in 9 days," showing them sights familiar from postcards. They travel with people who speak their language, and the tour guide makes sure they never have to use the language of the countries they're visiting. Their prearranged meals are taken at restaurants that can serve them the kind of food they have at home, and nothing happens that the tour company can't handle for them. Indeed, they are treated much like spoiled children at summer camp. What they are paying for are easy, passive experiences with just a hint of the exotic to them, but not anything really strange and difficult to understand. The roaring mechanical hippos at Disney World are about their limit.
Just as tourists need do nothing but get on and off the bus, eat the food, take the standard photos with their instant cameras, and buy the souvenirs, so kitsch consumers in general do not have to meet any experience halfway- it comes all the way to accommodate itself to them, predigested and ready to be assimilated."
Morreall, John; Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 67-69.